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Singular 2008-09 Worth Singling Out

Nov 21, 2009  - Craig Lord

Editorial: A link sent to me by a friend reminded me of a colleague on The Times who once said: "I better not do X, it is too simple, too logical - it could confuse a stupid person". The link took me to a place where the writer was not stupid, raised issues worth considering, but was clearly misguided in his second-guessing of the mind of Craig Lord.

Let's start with one of the things I truly believe:  there are efforts being made yet to orchestrate a return to more of the chaos of 2008-09 but the shiny suits will not make a comeback in the foreseeable future.  Why? These are the words of Julio Maglione, President of FINA: "During my term of office I intend to honour the will of Congress - and Congress has spoken on the matter of suits." So, that's 168 nations voting for a return to "textile-only" and a vote just as commanding in favour of rewording Rule SW10.7 so that no swim suit may aid speed, buoyancy or endurance. 

That will be so until 2013. The FINA vote back in July had the backing of some of the most senior members of the IOC, including the president of the Olympic movement, Jacques Rogge, according to sources on the International Olympic Committee. It also had the backing of a vast number of leading coaches around the world, who told their own federations: let's get back to a sensible place where our work and the achievements of our swimmers count for more than a suit.

Given the weight of opposition to shiny suits and all the damage they did to the nature of one of the biggest and most popular of Olympic sports, there is no reason - whatsoever - to believe that during 2010-13 swimming will become less popular than it was at peak points during the past 10 and even 20 years and more. One good thing to come out of the whole sad, suits saga was that so much prize money for world-record bonuses flowed to swimmers. But even then, some of it had a touch of "money for old rope" about it. 

Some sore folk are already writing up 2010 as a funds-freeze year, a year of less interest in swimming. Nonsense. One of the main reasons why swimming has attracted bigger crowds and bigger registration and more money is a man called Michael Phelps. And he is glad that the shiny silliness is about to be sunk. If anyone out there thinks that the next chapter in the life of the greatest Olympian will be less interesting now he's back in textile, they fool themselves, in my opinion. 

That link to the helmet and horns of a different opinion raised two issues that drew my attention: my own mind, and the potential for a pro-league.

Let's deal with my mind first: to be clear, the ONLY reason why I do not think two sets of world records is a good idea is that a world record and the holder of that record should be unique. There can be no sharing of the honour at any one time unless two swimmers happen to clock precisely the same time in precisely the same race conditions, and in a fair and even environment that respects the worth of standardisation in the interests of all. 

I wrote what I meant, and at the time I wrote did not consider the issue of a pro-league at all. For clarity on records: it would be unfair to the swimmers of the future to have their performances singled out, while the farce of the past two years is not singled out and reigns supreme still as the period that "owns" the status of world record. Is it not unfair to single out those who set records in 2008-09, cry those still clinging to the hope that swimming will one day place its swimmers back in the anonymity of a booster bubble suit that props some up more than others. 

No, sadly, it is not unfair to single out that era. That era deserves to be singled out not because it was "illegal", not because we should dishonour swimmers racing in "legal" conditions, but because the period of 2008-09 represents a break from the thread of history in the sport, short and long-term. It was a time in which fairness in competition took a knock from an artificial aid to performance that favoured some more than others. It was a time in which times on the clock and race conditions single themselves out because we are unable to compare them with what went immediately before and it will not be possible to compare them with that which follows immediately after. 

During 2008-09, those in support of silliness argued that performance-enhancing suits were a "natural evolution". Rubbish. They represented a fundamental shift in the nature of a sport with a long and fine tradition: swimming as a technique-based sport (and it still was that from 2000 to 2007 if you look at the progression trends across the world, regardless of the presence of bodysuits) was subservient, at best, to an equipment-based sport that proved, ultimately, to be unpalatable to the majority in the sport and many outside the sport. I cannot recall the number of times I informed the sports desks and editors for which I work of the latest world record only to be told "how boring is that ... farcical too". 

That farcical era should be the one that is singled out, and the world-records model I proposed, alone and then with Phil Whitten and then with the backing of some leading coaches, does indeed single that era out but, importantly, does not dishonour a single swimmer who set a shiny suit standard. There is a solution that is inclusive for swimmers but excludes the shiny suits from their future, according to the spirit of the votes of FINA, federations, coaches and the views of many leading swimmers around the world who are sick of living in the shadow of their suit.

Some ask why 2008-09 times should be set aside/singled out when they were swum legally. That misses the point entirely. I give you history:

When FINA declared in the 1950s that all world records must be set in pools 50m long, no swimmer who set a record in a 20-yard, 25-yard etc etc pool was dishonoured. But a line was drawn in the best interests of all and in a way that reflected altered race conditions. This is how history was and is recorded in the official book of world records:

200 'fly women world record


  • 2:42.3  Tineke Lagerberg  NED     Naarden         12.12.56       
  • 2:38.1  Tineke Lagerberg                Naarden         19.3.57
  • New rules: world records only recognised in 50-metre pools                                                     
  • 2:40.5  Nancy Ramey        USA     Los Angeles    29.6.58
  • 2:38.9  Tineke Lagerberg   NED     Naarden         13.9.58

Note how it got slower at first....no problem.

When FINA recognised world s/c records, it took the world best time in each event and made that the FINA standard time. Anyone who got past that got the record and on it went from there. No problem. 

Here is how it would translate to 2010:

Women 200m backstroke progression:

  • 2:06.62 Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN) August 25, 1991 Athens, Greece
  • January 1, 2008: non-textile suits allowed
  • 2:06.39 Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) February 16, 2008 Columbia, Missouri, US
  • 2:06.09 Margaret Hoelzer (USA) July 5, 2008 Omaha, Nebraska, USA
  • 2:05.24 Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) August 16, 2008 Beijing, China
  • 2:04.81 Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) August 1 2009 Rome, Italy
  • January 1, 2010: new textile-only suit rules, with profile limits
  • 2:06.60  Kirsty Coventry (ZIM)  June 2, 2010   Theoryville, USA

The last line is theoretical, of course.

Again, there is no problem and no swimmer is dishonoured and all swimmers would be chasing records set under prevailing race conditions, conditions that are so substantially different to those of 2008-09 that comparison is worthless. If you cannot compare performance on the clock in swimming, swimming loses one of its assets right there. Those who think 52 flat for 100 free women and 2:06 for 200 medley women and so forth are achievable in the first couple of years of textile need to think again. There is positive thought and there is stupidity. Nor is it simply about records at the helm. A whole wave of men (more than 30) are now below 2:10 over 200m breaststroke, after just three had gone that way when the LZR appeared in Feb 2009. If one extraordinary man comes along and sets a record fit to last 10 or more years (Barrowman etc), so be it, but when you get 30 men from all over the world doing truly extraordinary things all at the same time, you are looking at very unusual conditions, conditions that in 2010 will, thank heavens, be gone.

And so to the Pro-League. There has been talk of a pro-league in swimming for a while now, for the best part of the past decade, in my ken. Cornel Marculsecu, the director of FINA, has been involved in discussions with some fairly weighty potential investors. Whether a professional cup or league develops at all, and then develops under the auspices of FINA or another group is yet to be seen, of course. History tells us that FINA will not lightly allow the development of any aspect of aquatic sport now under its governance to unfold under the governance of others (on that score, the federation anticipated the mood long ago and by 2007 had handed out some $7m in prize money to athletes in one year - the pro-world arrived some while back in swimming). Masters is a fine example of where FINA stands in its ambition to retain control of world waters. It started out there in the world. It ended up under the FINA umbrella, with the blessing of those who ran masters on a more informal basis before FINA stepped in.

Personally, I would not be interested in watching or covering an event in which the swimmer was at best equal to and at worst subservient to a suit, an event where the swimmer's true ability in relation to those around him or her was invisible because the suit on the skin was so weighty to the end result. If others like that sort of thing let them set up their own sport, call it "suits". Whatever. Not for me. Never will be.

While so much is up in the air right now in terms of a pro-league, especially at times of economic stretch, some things are clear. No pro-league under FINA governance could countenance a league of shiny suits without a vote at Congress to change the rule book. Quite simply: shiny suits are banned and will remain so until 2013, according to the promise and commitment of Julio Maglione and the inarguable weight of argument behind that promise. I have no reason to believe that Julio Maglione will change his mind. Indeed, I firmly believe that he will honour that overwhelming support for a return to swimming as we knew and loved it.

USA Swimming led that 168-nation tidal wave of a vote back in July. Swimming Australia, too, is in the camp of those federations that embraced their sponsor's speedy suit but ultimately decided that shiny suits had led and would continue to lead swimming down the wrong road if it wanted to preserve fair and standardised race conditions as one of its prime raisons d'etre.

The world's two leading swimming nations are far from being alone in their commitment to returning the sport to a place where world records count as among the most special moments you could care to witness in world sport. Right now, with the tally of 2008-09 towering above 230 global standards, the most commonly heard view on the international pooldeck can be summed up in the words chosen by a world-class athlete on World Cup tour recently: "You want to cheer and celebrate because that's what a world record should be about  but when it happens every second race at every meet you go to, you really don't feel like cheering." Predictability can be the worst enemy of great sport.

So much about 2010, 2011, 2012 is unpredictable, in part because swimming is to be revived. The sport will be all the better and more believable for it. More meaningful and entertaining too.